GROWING UP: I was born and raised in San Diego County. After high school, I attended UCLA majoring in Mathematics and Economics then after awhile I went and got my Masters in Mathematics from Harvard. At first, I struggled at UCLA in mathematics and was subject to dismissal. A counselor told me that I was taking too many hard classes and working too much (I had 2 jobs). I told him that no one in my family has ever been to college so I don’t know how to do college. The counselor took me under his wing and helped me with my schedule so I was able to graduate. I thanked him for helping me and told him I would have failed without his help. I asked him if there was anything I could do to show my gratitude and he said I should teach math for 2 years in the inner city. Teach Math? I don’t even like kids or teaching, but since he helped me get through college I went ahead and tried it. Next thing you know, I got hooked on teaching!
CURRENT GIG: Eventually I went from the inner cities to Buckley, a private school in Sherman Oakes to New Roads in Santa Monica then to Milken Community High School and that’s where the lightbulb went off. Because I taught at a Jewish school, the first thing they wanted to know is if I knew the culture, the religion and community. I had to take classes in Hebrew, study the Torah and I thought to myself, that’s how school should be! Teachers should know the culture of the students. That’s what inspired me to go back to school to get my Masters to open up my own charter school for young men of color in Los Angeles. As an educator I’ve seen too many teachers who don’t connect with their students because they don’t live where they teach. In the private schools, I found that the teacher/student relationship is fantastic, my students would always invite me over for Shabbat dinner or to their parents’ anniversary parties…so I think what real education means is where the teacher and the school is a part of the kids lives and that is what I want to create in Los Angeles with the charter school.
My vision for the charter school is based on my experience. It is called MBA Leadership Academy; Math, Business and The Arts Leadership Academy. I have been the only one in everything I’ve ever done…the only black kid in a gifted class, one out of 5 black Math majors at UCLA, the only black teacher at private schools, so I know the experience to be a black male in a predominantly white environment at the highest levels. I am creating a school for young men of color to let them know how you navigate the landscape of the highest levels of education. Because I have been in those environments I know the amount of grit they have to have, the hard work ethic, how they have to cope with what environment they are in and how to to be comfortable with the dominant environment. A lot of kids in the inner city are scared of the predominate race. So in the charter school, I want to help them become comfortable, learn etiquette, learn mathematics, as well as, being well rounded in the arts so they know how to best express themselves and communicate with any medium.
EXPERIENCES WITH RACE: My first experience with racism is very vivid. I actually wrote an article about it at Harvard. It was when I was 6 and we were at the park. I was playing baseball with my friends and we were very tired. I went to go get a drink of water from the water fountain so I leaned over to get some water. And then there was this cute little white girl probably 5 years old, she was tiny, who was waiting in line to get water. When I was done I backed away to let her step up and get some water and then all of a sudden her mom comes running out of no where and yells “STOP STOP STOP!!! Don’t drink after him! We don’t drink after Niggers!” I was like “What does that mean? What does that mean!?” I didn’t know what the word meant, but the feeling from the words and expression made me feel like I was less than and doing something wrong and so I went back and told my parents. They said “Congratulations, you’re now every black man in America. We hoped it wouldn’t happen this soon, but that’s how it goes.” My father and mother sat me down and told me what the word meant and that some people won’t like me just because of the color of my skin and they don’t even have to know me. I was confused because all my friends were white, latino, black, so I didn’t understand the concept of what this racism was. That is something that has stuck with me this whole time, that water fountain incident. I then had the opportunity of reflection and of having to write a bunch of essays 30 yrs later at Harvard. I realized that incident fueled me to be a mathematician, to go to UCLA and to go to Harvard because I was subconsciously trying to prove to that lady she was wrong for calling me that. I had no idea I had been doing that all these years until I wrote those reflective essays. So now I try to say that my goals and accomplishments are for positive not a reaction to anything negative. Like the feeling that I have to prove myself as a black man to society. I know you think I’m a drug dealer, I know you think this or that, but if I tell you I’m a mathematician that goes against your beliefs or if I say I graduated from Harvard…that I can be just like u. I can go to college, be a good father…those things aren’t special, but are normal…the color of my skin has nothing to do with it.
FINAL THOUGHTS: My Philosophical Approach: I follow the 80/20 rule. 20% of the things you do are responsible for 80% of results. Most people put all equal efforts into everything which prevents them from being successful. You can see that in any company/community 20% of the people have 80% of the success. NBA = 20% of the players make 80% of the money. Hollywood = 20% of the actors get 80% of the roles. It shows up everywhere. How do I focus on the 20% of my life that will get me 80% of the happiness? Even when I hang around family/friends it’s not based on who’s a relative or ethnicity. If you bring me happiness and fit in my 20% than that’s who I spend 80% of my time with. I’m excited to share with students and help them figure out the 20% that will give 80% of results. 20% of the people in your life will bring you 80% of your happiness, identify them. Too many people put equal effort across the board. Not everyone will treat you fair and equal, don’t focus on those, focus on the 20%.
Photographed by Renee McMahon